Distance: 18-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 900 ft
This ride is a lot like the Golden Gate Bridge loop—a complete chestnut, over-hyped and tourist-ridden. Plus it’s all about money (you ride by Pebble Beach Golf Course, for god’s sake)—but, all that notwithstanding, it’s a delightful bike ride. Every time I do it, I wish I could live there so I could do it every day. You ride by waves smashing into coastal rocks, through lanes of coastal cypresses, do a nice little climb, roll through nearly unpopulated Monterey pine forest, then do a fun, fast descent, all on the best road surface money can buy. The forty-million-dollar houses (no exaggeration) are actually pretty cool too, if you can forget the socio-political issues.
This isn’t just a scenic tourist stroll—the riding is outstanding. The road contour on the west side is a delightful rollercoaster—up and down and back and forth—and the inland half of the loop is better—glassy smooth meandering, intermixed with effortless descending. You’ll do some work—my computer recorded 1300 ft vert. The traffic can be a bit noisome, granted, and if you can do the ride before 10 AM so much the better. Of course you’d like to do the ride at sunset, but that’s when everyone else wants to be there too—the last time I did it at sunset, one parking area had four gigantic motor coaches disgorging tourists.
This is California coastal riding, so wind is likely and the weather can feel surprisingly cold given the temperature—dress prudently.
(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)
The route is impossible to miss. Because the locals want to keep you from exploring the neighborhoods, they’ve painted huge, unmissable “17-Mile Drive” signs on the road and posted beautiful wooden route marker posts at all the intersections. Just follow them. Start where the Drive takes off from Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove. There are places where you can park on the dirt shoulder near the beginning of the ride, or find parking along Sunset. Immediately you’ll see a manned gate charging an entrance fee from the cars, but you’re free, so bypass it on the R (officially you’re supposed to pay a cyclists’ fee, but no one ever does).
Take an absurdly well-signed R onto Spanish Bay Rd. (not the first R, into a golf course and the Inn at Spanish Bay). When you hit the water, take a moment to detour into the parking lot on your immediate R and explore the playful rock cairns covering Spanish Bay Beach (signed “Spanish Bay #3,” referring to the numbered tour guide you don’t have because you didn’t pay a car fee). Continue along the ocean, stopping at parking lots for the views.
Let me be brutally honest: this stretch of shoreline nice (the tourists are impressed), but it isn’t spectacular, or even the best in the immediate area. Additionally, you can’t get close to the water easily—you’re largely restricted to formal parking-lot viewing areas. For more spectacular, easily accessible shoreline, after your ride go west on Sunset Dr. from our starting point and explore the waterline along the west side of Pacific Grove (still Sunset Dr.). You’re free to wander (it’s easy to bolder-hop until the waves are crashing on the rocks in front of your nose), parking is abundant and unstructured, and you’ll be nearly alone.
Continuing on our mapped route, make a big L turn and climb up from the water onto a bluff running SW along the shore. Here the road is lined by grand cypresses and some of the most expensive mansions you’ll ever see. Feel free to fantasize. The tread is up and down, back and forth, at a deliciously relaxed tempo through deep shade—the best part of the ride, to my mind.
Just after you pass Pebble Beach Golf Course and ride through the parking lot, you reach an intersection and turn R. A sign reads “Narrow road—cyclists exercise caution,” and you’re in for a few minutes of white-knuckling. I guess the cars are free to continue their reckless ways.
At the southeast corner of the loop, the road Y’s, with the main road turning right-angle L and beginning an obvious climb away from the water, and the secondary road going R and dropping to a lovely back door into the hamlet of Carmel (see Adding Miles below). There’s a temptation to turn around here and retrace your steps, since you’re naturally keen to do all that sweet riding a second time, but don’t—what lies ahead is not to be missed. Do the substantial (800-ft) climb up to Hwy 68. Ignoring the R to the exit gate, go L, paralleling 68, then R to cross over 68 as soon as you can. When you’re on the overpass, all noticeable climbing is over.
What follows is just a perfectly sweet 7 miles of cycling. Continue on the main road through a series of intersections, mostly descending, all the way back to Spanish Bay Rd. All the sight-seeing cars leave the Scenic Drive at Carmel or the Hwy 68 gate, and almost no one lives back here, so you’ll have this back side of the loop all to yourself.
The one place where you might be in doubt as to the route is when you close the loop at Spanish Bay Rd, which you took to get to the shoreline earlier. An enormous, unmissable sign painted on the road will tell you that the Scenic Drive goes L, down Spanish Bay Rd. toward the ocean. Well, the loop part of our route does, but you already did that, and if you go down there you’ll find yourself retracing the loop forever. There are worse fates. But ignore the sign, go straight, and you’ll retrace the stem of the lollipop and end the ride at the Sunset Drive entrance.
Adding miles: The 17-Mile Drive works its way around the perimeter of a network of residential streets, and you can explore any of them. The architecture is fascinating everywhere, and there are equestrian stables with rich girls doing dressage and such—it’s a whole world in there you’re only allowed to glimpse.
At the start of our route you’re a short ride along the shore from one of the three best rec bike paths on the West Coast (the other two being Sacramento’s American River Parkway and Eugene’s riverfront trail system): the Monterey Bay Coastal Bike Path, 29 miles of ideal bike strolling that runs from the 17-Mile Drive to Castroville, working its way, always along the water, through the beautiful residential neighborhoods of Pacific Grove, the bustle and charm of the Monterey waterfront, the tourist madness of Cannery Row, past the Aquarium, and finally along the beach dunes north of Monterey. Once north of Monterey the path is usually empty enough of walkers that you can time trial it if you’re of a mind—during the Sea Otter Festival you’ll always see pros keeping their legs loose there. The Monterey Aquarium, of course, is a world-class facility well worth an afternoon. To find the Bike Path from our starting point on the 17-Mile Drive, just ride straight to the ocean and ride north along the water—the afore-mentioned Sunset Dr. is part of it..
At the southeast corner of the 17-Mile Scenic Drive loop, at the Y, if you go R instead of L, in a quarter mile you reach the back door into Carmel, perhaps the most adorable village in America. Every house looks like a variation on Hansel and Gretel’s candy house, every restaurant serves good and interesting food, every shop boasts tasteful, unique goods and friendly staff. You can ride down to the beach via Ocean Avenue, take the simply and appropriately named Scenic Road past the beach bungalows, and eventually work your way to Hwy 1, at which point you’re seven miles from my beloved Robinson Canyon Road ride. A few miles past Robinson is our East Carmel Valley Road ride.